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UK Gov deal opens up 2m desktops to MS rivals

Now there are three games in town. Well, two and a half...

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The UK Government's Office of Government Commerce has struck a "ground-breaking" three-cornered deal covering the use of desktop productivity software in Government departments. The deal is the upshot of protracted and at times acrimonious negotiations between the OGC and Microsoft, during which OGC CEO Peter Gershon repeatedly stage-whispered that Redmond had better cut its prices or uk.gov was off to "alternatives."

The OGC now claims that the deal, which takes the form of memorandums of understanding with IBM, Sun and Microsoft, will save £100 million over three years, and covers two million desktops. It is not entirely a defeat for Microsoft, in that the people buying productivity software will still be able to to buy Microsoft Office if they want to, but equally it's not a massive win either. Gershon has not done a huge volume margin gouge with one supplier, but has instead moved to legitimise Microsoft's competitors. Sun in particular sees it as a crucial foot in the door.

It's not clear where the £100 million comes from, but it could be that this is the amount that would be saved if all purchasers did actually go for Office, according to whatever pricing deal the OGC has now struck with Microsoft. That is of course an entirely theoretical saving, given that at least some of the purchasers are going to go with alternatives, but the OGC will certainly have achieved attractive rates with Sun and IBM. The alternatives, since you ask, are StarOffice from Sun and Smartsuite (no, we don't know why either) from IBM. So it seems reasonable to elect Sun as the big winner here.

Sun technical consultant Dave Pinnington told The Register today that his company sees the move as the first stage in breaking "Microsoft's monopoly on the public sector desktop." He agreed that the inertia of IT managers sticking with Microsoft for the sake of a quiet life still has to be overcome, but pointed out the OGC announcement will have the effect of giving legitimacy to the competition, and hence will help break down the barriers.

He also points to the huge costs associated with sticking with Microsoft right now. Many PCs in the public sector just plain won't run Windows XP and Office XP, so new hardware would have to be deployed, as is always the case for customers who try to stick with Microsoft's bracing upgrade escalator. Sun cheekily pitches the notion that if UK government didn't upgrade to XP for five years, going for StarOffice instead, then it'd save more like £1 billion. That again is a notional figure, but increased deployment of StarOffice combined with cutbacks in hardware upgrades most certainly would achieve savings in excess of £100 million.

Even if StarOffice is a wild success in government, at this stage the OGC deals will not directly mean a triumph for open source. Most deployments are likely to be on existing Windows platforms, but nevertheless it will become easier and more feasible for the UK public sector to begin experimenting with StarOffice-Linux combinations. Sun also sees the moves as giving it some traction in selling Sun Ray thin client systems into the public sector - the game, certainly, has opened up.

Related stories:
UK closer to switching 500k desktops from MS Office?
UK Gov agency threatens to dump 500,000 Windows desktops

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